transformational leadership

4 Lessons on Transformation I Learned at Starbucks

There’s a Starbucks four miles from my home. Every day on her route to work, my wife bought a latte from their drive-thru. But one day, she stopped. She simply couldn’t wait in the drive-thru line for over 20 minutes. The convenience factor was gone!

Several years after she made this move, I picked up a second job to pay off some credit card debt. I began working nights and weekends at this same Starbucks. In the meantime, the store had transformed from a poor performer to an efficient machine, especially the drive-thru.

What changed? A manager named Katie. Katie was a force of nature. At six-feet plus with a personality that embodied her Chicago roots, she had transformed this busy store. While waiting for my interview, I witnessed Katie greet the person at the back of a line 15 people deep. She exuded confidence and vision.

I spent 15 months as a barista under Katie’s leadership. I’ve never been pushed by a supervisor so much in my entire life. While working at Starbucks, I experienced a personal transformation that has made me a better leader and follower. My time at Starbucks helped me become more humble, self-aware and disciplined.

I’ve recently been promoted in my organization. As I survey the view from my new position and assess the needs of my direct reports, I’ve been reflecting on how Katie turned around that one Starbucks in Phoenix.

1. Paint the picture of what is broken before you share what could be.

On a regular basis, Katie would find a problem area demanding attention. However, she was always helping us understand the problem’s ripples; being out of position led to unnecessary movement. Doing someone else’s job eroded trust. Failing to communicate your lack of supplies led to extra waiting for drive-thru customers.

Thinking of Katie’s style reminds me of a lesson I learned from a famous speech. Nancy Duarte changed my view of communicating for transformation when she dissected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Duarte discovered that Dr. King spent 12 of his 16 minutes painting a picture of what was broken. He only spent four minutes describing his dream. He knew before he shared what could be, he needed to paint why the current situation was unsustainable.

Where we are has to become uncomfortable before we can move our people to somewhere new.

Where we are has to become uncomfortable before we can move our people to somewhere new.

2. Be the message.

As a leader, Katie embodied everything she wanted us to be; the areas she coached us in, she modeled herself. She worked on the floor every weekday morning during the rush. Honestly, she was not perfect, and like a lot of visionary leaders, her actions produced some critics and enemies. Yet, her daily habits reinforced the words she spoke to us on floor and in the back room. We knew she was not speaking empty words.

Leading transformation demands an all-in leader. It is not enough to say all the right things. We’re going to have embody the message we’re championing to others.

3Pick focus areas.

None of us can fix every problem at once. The quickest way to go insane or get fired is to try to undo years of bad leadership and culture in a few weeks. In her first months, Katie made sure she got the right team in place (which meant hiring and firing) and focused on drive-thru wait times and drink accuracy. These three focus area continued throughout my time as a barista.

(Side note: As Katie took a leave of absence and later left the store, these were the areas that began to undo her success. The quality of baristas, the efficiency in the drive-thru and the quality of beverages eroded.)

You can’t change everything, but you can change something. You can’t fix it all today, but you can fix a few problems at a time. Like light, focusing our leadership produces greater impact.

You can’t change everything, but you can change something.

4. Leaders are problem solvers.

In his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin argues that “the future belongs to those who can do two things: Lead and Solve Interesting Problems.”,

Our greatest offer is discovering solutions to interesting problems. We shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter broken systems, inertia and ineffective teams. That’s why we were hired. That’s what leaders do!

While our task lists often include getting to inbox zero, leading meetings, managing budgets and refereeing conflicts, the first item in every leader’s job description should be “solving problems.”

While manufacturers traffic in widgets, leaders traffic in problems. Problems are the raw materials from which we fashion transformation and progress.

I don’t work at Starbucks anymore, but all these years later I cannot walk into a location across the country without hearing Katie’s voice in my head. I see inefficient deployment, inattention to details and a lack of legendary customer service. Katie transformed one store, but she also transformed me.

We get to transform people’s lives today! Don’t waste the gift.


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Scott Savage

When Scott Savage walks into a room, his cackle typically preceeds him. Scott is a writer and a pastor. He serves on the executive leadership team at his church in Phoenix. He’s married to Dani and the father of Wes, Shay and Max. You can get a copy of his ebook, The Greater Than Challenge: A Guide to Reframing Your Life, at

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